Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Let nature do its own work

Every now and then—in everyday life or on blogs—someone will decry any perceived blurring of gender lines and declare something along the lines of Men and women are different. Their minds are just hard-wired differently.

I have to say if that’s the case, you really shouldn’t have to declare or decry anything. If nature has limited us in terms of how we can stretch the boundaries of gender, let nature do its own work. If men and women are truly different and meant to be different, why do you have to keep telling us and reminding us that we’re different? Shouldn’t we just automatically be different?

Do I concede that in various aspects of life, men and women each have their own bell curves and the curves do not overlap precisely? Yes. Is all of that difference (between the center of one bell curve and the center of the next) due to a difference in “wiring”? No. Do I think that that means we should encourage the gender whose bell curve is to the right to exaggerate whatever’s being measured, and we should encourage the gender whose bell curve is slightly to the left to downplay whatever’s being measured? Definitely not.

Let’s take upper-body strength, for example. I think most people believe that men, on average, have stronger upper bodies than women. But does that mean all men have stronger upper bodies than all women? No. And yet people will say things like, “Women shouldn’t be firefighters because men have better upper body strength.” That’s absolutely ridiculous. Why don’t you just have an upper body strength prerequisite, then? If you do, it’s possible that most firefighters will be men, but why deny a bulked-up female the possibility of being a firefighter? This is about as silly as saying that women on the whole are better at working with children, so men should not be elementary school teachers. There are plenty of women who aren’t good at working with children, and then there are men who are great at working with children. And how much of this has to do with upbringing versus “hard-wiring” or “nature” is still debatable.

But even if we were to assume there were natural limitations on what people could do, why keep harping on those limitations? Let nature decide what the limit is. I’m naturally more inclined than your average person to eventually be diagnosed with diabetes. Does that mean I should just throw in the towel and become obese in the hopes of speeding up the process? Asians, on the whole, are generally shorter than Whites and Blacks. Does that mean Asians should withhold protein and other nutrients needed to grow in the hopes that they might exaggerate the shortness of Asians? Just because you have a natural tendency toward something doesn’t mean you should reinforce that tendency. In fact, in many cases, you should fight against it—your pride in achievement and sometimes even your morality depend on that fight.

In running, men have historically been faster than women. Some of the fastest high school boys milers run at the pace of some of the fastest Olympic athlete women milers. Does that mean women should give up running the mile? Would you conclude from that fact that women are meant to be slower than men and that women should just give up trying to be fast? Let’s put it another way. Let’s say you had a young daughter who had a strong interest in running and told you, “One day I’m going to run the mile in 3:43 seconds.” Would you tell her “That’s great, honey, but women just can’t run that fast”? Or would you tell her “It won’t be easy. No woman has ever done it, but if you train as hard as you can, I think you’ll be the one to do it”? Which response do you think will make her a better athlete in the end? I’m betting on the second response. If she’s not meant to run the mile in 3:43, that’s up to her body to decide, not you. And if you encourage rather than discourage her, even if she doesn’t end up running 3:43, she’s far more likely to run at least 4:12. The gender gap in running records has been steadily closing over the past few decades, and it’s probably being closed by women who are encouraged to run, not women constantly being reminded that men are faster than women.

So if you have a room full of 100 men and 100 women, and three of those men seem less-than-manly to you, and three of those women seem less-than-womanly to you; instead of telling those six people they need to be like the other 194 people, just let them be. If they face limitations in life from nature, it’s not your place to remind them of nature; nature itself will decide.

Or perhaps the fact that you feel the need to keep chanting “nature” and “hard-wired” shows a secret fear that nature isn’t really on your side. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” The biological determinists doth protest too much, methinks.

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Can objectification in moderation be okay?

As a longtime feminist, I’ve read quite a bit of both layperson and professional writing on the objectification of women, particularly the sexual objectification of women. I understand it’s wrong. I understand it’s damaging to society and is one of many ways the patriarchy tries to keep women down.

My question, though, is whether the wrongness of it is in the implementation of that objectification or the mere existence of it? In other words, in a perfectly egalitarian society (let’s imagine it’s possible), would objectification ever be okay in certain contexts? Or if it wasn’t the context that mattered, would it be okay if it weren’t prevalent (in other words, is it a quantity problem, as opposed to a quality problem)?

After all, isn’t there plenty of objectification that is “okay” in our current society? We objectify movie stars and rock stars (and not just sexually). It’s not as if we all appreciate them fully as human beings. A lot of times we just isolate one part of them (acting ability, good looks, confidence, stage presence, whatever) and idolize it. How many times have you heard a fan of a star say something like, “Yeah, I know she’s an asshole in real life, but I love her movies”? It happens all the time.

I’ll admit it. I objectify people all the time. You’re the annoying loud teenage kids on the bus. You’re the smelly homeless person asking me for change. You’re the guy in drag walking down the street. Do I get to know these people? Do I appreciate them for who they are as whole human beings and not just one aspect I choose to isolate and judge them by? No. I objectify them. I definitely objectify them. I’m sure people objectify me too.

We don’t have the time to get to know everyone and appreciate them all as whole human beings. It’s just not possible, and it’s not really part of human nature. That doesn’t mean that women should always be perceived as sex objects—whether they’re walking down the street, playing sports, giving a corporate presentation, or acting in a film. And I think (not 100% sure here) that that may be the problem, the sheer ubiquity of the sexual objectification of women. It’s not that women should never be objectified but that they shouldn’t always be objectified; and, in contemporary American culture (and other countries’ cultures as well), they are almost always objectified sexually.

I’m try to imagine, for example, if I were a porn actress, would I mind that people viewing my movies were objectifying me and thinking of me only sexually? Probably not. That’s kind of the whole point of the porn movie. On the other hand, if I were meeting with my accountant to discuss filing taxes or just meeting someone at a fundraiser, I probably would want them to talk to me and not my breasts. Maybe my imaginary life as a porn actress is way off, but that’s just what I’m thinking. I know some would argue that porn (as opposed to erotica) serves to make sexual objectification in everyday circumstances more prevalent. That may be true, too. Probably depends on the type of porn and who’s watching it.

Any input into this, women and men, feminists and non-feminists? Is objectification in any context or society always wrong, or is it a matter of degrees or manifestation?

Movies Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Stark Sexism

I was quite looking forward to this new Iron Man film adaption. I’ve been a big Iron Man fan for decades (particularly fond of the alcoholism saga and armor wars of the 80s and 90s).

Well, last night, I saw an advanced screening of it at the Balboa Theater. I love this theater. With the special deal of advance-purchased tickets, my wife and I saw this film and had a “small” (what most movie theaters call “large”) popcorn with real butter, a jumbo hot dog, and a small (what most theaters would call “kids”) soda—all for US$23. The management gave out free posters to everyone and welcomed us at the beginning of the show, had two trivia questions with prizes, and apologized for the terrible Louis Vuitton commercial we had to sit through before the previews. It’s sad that independently-owned theaters like this are falling by the wayside in favor of megaplexes like the Metreon. The Balboa has personality and affordability. More importantly to me, it has a good mix of mainstream and artsy films. But I digress…

In terms of remaining faithful to the spirit the comic book and in terms of thrilling action and laugh-inducing jokes, the film is a success in spades. What is up with the sexism, though? I cannot imagine a film about a billionaire woman who is drunk all the time, sleeps around with and uses men like tissue, and is so incompetent that her personal assistant must do everything for her being doted on and admired by said personal assistant with the basic attitude of “Well, she may be a mess, but she’s my mess, and even though she’s kind of an asshole, I love her.” Who would watch that?

Of course, most people don’t really care if a male character is an asshole, as long as the film has laughter and well-animated violence. It just made me angry how the (terribly miscast) Gwyneth Paltrow assistant character is so pathetic. She’s basically Bond’s Moneypenny but without the wit and the sex appeal. Instead of Moneypenny, she’s a bit more like Sandra Bullock’s character from Two Weeks Notice. The only other prominent female character in the film is the sorority-looks-with-a-liberal-conscience reporter whom Stark has a one night stand with and then basically ignores.

My first reaction was to think, I thought we’d made some progress. I thought this was 2008. What is this? The 1940s? Then, I thought again and realized that roles for women in 1940s films were much better. You had the fast-talking Katherine Hepburn types and the film noir femme fatales. Most personal assistants and secretaries in films of those days had sass and could banter. Now we get the “You’re so bad and undeserving but I adore you. Tee hee!” women? I hope this backlash will abate soon, and third-wave (or are we on the fourth one?) feminism will come back in full swing.

Is it a sin to want an enjoyable action film with humor and just a little less sexism and misogyny?

Movies Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Ode to Jason Segel’s Penis

A few months ago, I marveled at the ability of Beowolf‘s animators to hide the title character’s penis, despite the fact he was naked and jumping and moving every which way.

Well, I just saw Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and I have to say I’m impressed. For a bawdy sex comedy featuring a male protagonist, it was a bit subversive in making the male nudity far more prominent than the female nudity. Sure, you briefly see a photo of Mila Kunis flashing her breasts (and you’re not even 100% sure it’s her breasts in that photo), but you see Jason Segel in the buff numerous times throughout the film and see his penis very clearly at least three times. I’m amazed that got past the MPAA (which typically has an inexplicable fear of the penis and no qualms about female full frontal nudity).

Even though Segel’s body isn’t fun to look at, in my mind, this is cinematic progress.

Movies Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

When will Asian-Americans get a Will Smith?

You may have missed it, but if you search for it, you will find it in abundance. It wasn’t played up a lot in mainstream media, but there was a little controversy about the hit movie 21.

Apparently, a lot of Asian-Americans were in an uproar about how the race of the characters had been changed from Asian-American to White. Some were even calling for boycotts. The argument went something like, “It’s hard enough for Asian-Americans actors to get good roles in Hollywood, but now that they would actually get the opportunity to play a lead role, the role suddenly has become ‘white-washed.'” Sadly, I don’t think it makes an economic difference whether or not Asian-Americans boycott a movie; we aren’t a significant enough demographic for Hollywood execs to consider. The film was a commercial success.

One person commenting on a blog or article (I forget which) thought people were overreacting and pointed out that the original novel I Am Legend featured a white character who was then ‘black-washed’ for the movie in the form of Will Smith. I think that’s just rubbing salt in the wounds even more, frankly. There is still a lot of racism against African-Americans in Hollywood, but there has also been a lot of progress, and the fact that Will Smith can carry off an “everyman” role like Robert Neville is evidence of that progress.

This is what it ultimately boils down to—Hollywood execs will cast whomever they feel will bring the biggest box office draw. If Asian-American actors brought in the dough (Harold & Kumar was profitable, which is why it gets a sequel, but it is not a Titanic-like blockbuster), they would be cast in lead roles more often.

Hollywood, through its amoral greed, is just providing a lens into the racism that America as a whole demonstrates through its ticket purchases. White Americans are just beginning to accept the notion of identifying with an African-American as “the everyman” (think Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks) in the form of Will Smith. Asian-Americans are still finding themselves identifying with White (and sometimes Black) protagonists, but White Americans never find themselves in the position of having to identify with only Asian-American protagonists.

Even though all of my examples so far have had to do with male actors, I think the trend applies equally as well to female actors. Lucy Liu and Sandra Oh have become household names, but how many movies or TV shows feature them as the leading lady. Lucy Liu has been able to be a main character side by side with Ally McBeal and the other two of Charlie’s Angels, but has she been the lead in anything by herself? Has Sandra Oh (without Ellen Pompeo or Diane Lane)? And, no, Double Happiness was not a box office hit.

It’s easy to put all the blame on Hollywood for being “racist,” but like corporate America in general, Hollywood studios are amoral, not immoral. If casting Asian-Americans in lead roles will make them profitable, they’ll do it. Hollywood is more a barometer of America’s racism. Most Americans still find it difficult to identify with an Asian-American protagonist—that’s the bottom line. I’m not sure how to change that, but clearly boycotting “white-washed” movies isn’t the way to do it.

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Malcolm X wasn’t the antithesis of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Rarely do the people I run into at work, church, or social settings express admiration for Malcolm X or even acknowledge his existence. The few times he’s mentioned are usually as a “rival” to Martin Luther King, Jr., with the understanding that MLK represents all that is good, and Malcolm X represents a violent, hating, extremist (sometimes people even wrongly call him a racist).

The truth is that Malcolm X wasn’t for violence. He just believed in self-defense, the same way George W. Bush believes in fighting Afghanistan and Iraq in “self-defense” (re: the 9/11 attacks) and the same way most Americans believe the colonial “Founding Fathers” were right in violently fighting the British during the Revolutionary War (instead of marching on London and singing “We Shall Overcome”). This is what Malcolm X had to say about non-violence: Concerning nonviolence, it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks. He didn’t say, “I’m going to take a gun right now and start shooting people who don’t agree with me.”

Is it admirable to resist non-violently? Sure. I admire Gandhi. I admire MLK. If someone can resist non-violently, then that takes a certain strength that goes beyond the natural human instinct to retaliate and defend. But that doesn’t mean people who defend themselves espouse violence; it means they are human, and the ones who can resist non-violently are super-human.

Furthermore, Malcolm X and MLK didn’t always agree with one another, but they are not the enemies mainstream media portrays them to be. They both understood the same problems to exist, and they both admired one another (even while criticizing each other and debating one another). This is a letter Martin Luther King, Jr. sent to Malcolm X’s wife Betty Shabazz after Malcolm’s death:

I was certainly saddened by the shocking and tragic assassination of your husband. While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had the great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems that we face as a race. While I know that this is a difficult hour for you, I am sure that God will give you the strength to endure. I will certainly be remembering you in my prayers and please know that you have my deepest sympathy. Always consider me a friend and if I can do anything to ease the heavy load that you are forced to carry at this time, please feel free to call on me.

You don’t have to agree 100% with Malcolm X’s viewpoints to admire him; and you should, if you have studied his life and speeches, recognize that he is often misrepresented and continually done an injustice to by bourgeios conversation, American history textbooks, and mainstream media. Malcolm X was one of the most honest and well-meaning human beings who ever lived. He was able to admit when he was wrong, and he ultimately desired and saw the possibility of true kinship of human beings of all races.

Here’s to you, Malcolm!

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

What if “that” isn’t “so gay”?

I fully expect the “stop being so politically correct” comments to come pouring in for this, but I’ve always been bothered by the phrase That’s so gay.

I’ve heard it from even my most liberal friends—friends who fully embrace equal rights for gays and lesbians. It is part of our culture. I even said it myself for a number of years. Its offensiveness is only tangential, but it is still existent… existent enough that I find ways to avoid it (and still feel good about being able to express myself—don’t worry!). After all, That’s so gay really just means That’s so stupid or That’s so undesirable to do. Whereas the word gay used to be associated with happiness, it is now in everyday speech associated with the undesirable, the stupid, and the uncool. In the end, people who use the phrase are probably not likely to start yelling faggot! and dyke! or to start beating up gay people for being gay, but I just don’t see why we need to create (reinforce?) negative associations with the word gay. If you mean That’s so stupid or I don’t want to do that, then say “That’s so stupid” or “I don’t want to do that.” It’s completely unnecessary to say “That’s so gay.”

This is an entirely different phenomenon from the association of black with bad or yellow with cowardly. There simply exists no other simple word for the black market other than the black market, no other word for blackmail than blackmail. The only thing that seems artificial in the English language’s use of the word black is in application to skin color. All the supposedly “black” people I’ve met are various shades of tan or brown. I’m supposedly “yellow” for being Asian, and I’ve often heard people refer to Asians as “olive-colored,” but for the life of me I don’t see how my skin tone is either tint. Since Malcolm X took it for granted that what he then called Negroes (as was the popular label of the time) were, in fact, “black,” he took offense to the association of the word black with that which is negative. I view it as quite the other way around—it was probably already part of the English language to associate black with the negative and then a logical extension for racists to then attach the “black” label to overall darker-skinned individuals. The fact is that even white people are not white (with the exception of albinos), and that in the United States it was court decisions that had to decide whether or not Arab-Americans, Japanese-Americans, and Filipino-Americans qualified as “white”—ultimately deciding the societal worth (and not really the race) of those individuals.

What we’re seeing now with the word gay is the opposite. It is now firmly entrenched in popular usage to have gay mean “attracted to the same sex” with only a vestigial connotation of happiness. There’s absolutely no reason to start or continue to associate it with the generally negative (the stupid, the undesirable).

The worst part about the phrase That’s so gay is, however, not its pervasiveness so much as its subtlety. Unlike blatant slurs like faggot, That’s so gay is very difficult to counter without appearing oversensitive or “politically correct,” and the explanation of why it might be harmful is quite lengthy (see how long I’ve been writing about it so far?), so most people just let it go.

I just hope the day doesn’t come that people start saying That’s so Asian to describe that which is undesirable.

Further reading
That’s so gay!
That’s So Gay!
‘That’s so gay’ prompts a lawsuit
What is the lamest reason for giving up on Ubuntu/Linux you’ve ever heard?

Movies Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Ode to Beowolf’s Penis

Last night I saw Beowolf 3D—quite a technological feat. Most of the movie looked “real”; even the movement of the characters was very smooth. The nudity in the film was interesting, though. I think most people are familiar with the Hollywood nudity double standard, but in Beowolf it was pronounced to the point of being laugh-out-loud comical (to me, at least—I may have been the only one in the whole theater laughing).

There’s one scene where Beowolf spends a considerable amount of time jumping around naked while fighting Grendel. The way they planned the storyboards, there was always something covering his penis, though: his other leg, the table, someone else, Grendel’s arm, a sword, the smoke from an explosion. It seemed as if everyone item and being in the room was in a joint conspiracy to say, “Quick! Hide Beowolf’s penis!” And yet when Angelina Jolie’s character appears, they have no qualms about showing her every inch… multiple times even.

Really, what is so threatening about a glimpse of an animated penis? Why can’t the MPAA get past this? Well, at least the makers of Beowolf made a good spectacle out of the double standard. The film would be a great archaelogical find for a freer society centuries from now.

P.S. Robert Redford, this time the AMC theater did not show me any commercials beforehand, and yet they managed not to charge an extra $3 per person for such an “amenity.”

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Satisfy your curiosity the right way

In a previous entry, I ranted about people asking where I’m “really” from.

Well, a few days ago, I had the good fortune to come across a white person who asked me (without my prompting her) how one is supposed to ask the question. I was actually taken off guard and didn’t have a ready response. I often get so annoyed at people asking “Where are you really from?” that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what they should be asking.

I thought about it for a while and came up with “What’s your background?” or “What’s your ethnicity?” I guess probably putting the two together might make sense: “What is your ethnic background?” So there you have it. If you want to know what someone’s ethnic background is—surprise, surprise—ask her what her ethnic background is. Don’t ask where she’s “really” from.

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Now I’m not Asian enough?

In a recent entry called Am I From China? No, I’m not, I talked about attempts by new acquaintances to make me a perpetual foreigner (despite the fact that I was born and raised in the US and hadn’t even visited Asia once until I was eleven).

Well, yesterday, something weirdly the opposite happened. As part of my job, I answer a lot of phone calls (in addition to some other duties, I’m the receptionist for my office), and I’d spoken to a Chinese woman (not an American of Chinese descent—really from China) several times. I met her in person yesterday and she had this really shocked look on her face when I said we’d spoken on the phone before. Her eyes widened, and her first words to me were, “Oh! I didn’t know it was you. You sound like a white person!”

You just can’t win, can you? You can’t just be Asian-American, can you? You either have to be “really from” some Asian country (even if you’re really from Connecticut) or you have to be too white to be truly Asian. In truth, though Asian-Americans feel it in a unique way in this country, most people with distinctive dual ethnic identities feel this pull (or push—however you look at it). There were a lot of hapa kids at my last teaching job, and I noticed that most of them felt the need to surround themselves with almost all white friends or almost all Asian friends. There’s a lot of pressure to pick a side and not straddle the line.

What really confuses me about the incident most is… what did she think I was supposed to sound like? There isn’t, as far as I know, an Asian-American accent. There are Asian accents if you aren’t born in America. There’s what people call a “Black accent.” There are Southern accents, Boston accents, New Jersey accents. As far as I know, there isn’t a way that an Asian-American can sound Asian without faking a bad Suzie Wong accent.

Well, the lady was friendly and well-meaning enough, I suppose. Or maybe I do sound too white. Again, not sure what that means…